Through the Viewfinder From Point A to Point B: A Streetcar in Front of the Pico House, Los Angeles, ca. 1878

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Los Angeles’ first rapid transit system was a humble one as the Spring and Sixth Street Railway began operations in mid-1874 with a single horse pulling a small trolley car along a route that ran from the Plaza to the intersection of Sixth and Figueroa streets, but most such beginnings tend to be modest as innovation and growth lead later to more significant improvements.

In the case of the Angel City’s rapid transportation sector, the next major change was the introduction of cable railways followed soon after by electrified roads, including the region-wide Pacific Electric system that was the nation’s largest in terms of track mileage, but the introduction of the horseless carriage (i.e., the automobile) brought the long, slow decline of mass transit over the course of much of the 20th century.

Los Angeles Star, 9 April 1870.

Recent decades have brought something of a revival in rapid transit through such enterprises as the Metrolink commuter rail and the Metro system of subway and above-ground lines, much of which runs on older routes, and the contrast between the complexity of modern transit and its origins 150 years ago is obviously striking. This post, highlighting a stereoscopic photograph, taken by Alexander C. Varela (brother-in-law to famous bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa) about 1878 and republished by Isaiah W. Taber of San Francisco, from the Homestead’s holdings, looks at the early history of the Spring and Sixth Street line through the year 1874.

With the city and region undergoing its first development book, beginning around 1868, it is no surprise that, shortly after the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad the following year connected the city and the port, there was talk of getting a street railway project going. A petition to the Common (City) Council, one of the members of which was Elijah H. Workman, was referred to a special committee and a franchise granted in May 1870 to seven Angelenos including former district attorney and future mayor Cameron E. Thom, John M. Baldwin, James G. Howard and others.

Star, 10 January 1872.

This effort did not materialize beyond the approval, however, and in early 1872, the Los Angeles Star commented that

The present and almost impassable condition of the streets, causes pedestrians to anxiously desire the arrival of that period in the history of Los Angeles, when street railways shall be inaugurated. They certainly would be very acceptable just now, if not profitable.

The next attempt at a project was made in July 1873 when David V. Waldron received a franchise to build a line from Main and Alameda streets just above the Plaza to follow the former thoroughfare south to Washington Boulevard at the southern end of town. Waldron was the owner of Washington Gardens, which had an extensive vineyard and where he planned to put in a skating rink and dance hall with ambitions to be a local example of the famous Woodward’s Gardens in San Francisco.

Star, 20 July 1873.

While Waldron’s gardens were developed to a certain extent for Angelenos to enjoy and Washington Gardens later expanded in the Boom of the 1880s, including an early ostrich farm by Edwin Cawston, who was well-known for his South Pasadena farm in succeeding years, his rail project did not move beyond the planning stages, but former District Court judge Robert M. Widney, who helped save lives during the Chinese Massacre of 1871 but was also identified as involved in the vigilante lynching of Michel Lachenais the prior year, was the next to bring an idea before the Council.

In early December 1873, Widney received a 20-year franchise for a line that was to start in front of the Temple Block at the intersection of Main, Spring and Temple streets (this is the site of City Hall now) and proceed south on Spring to 1st, then west to Fort (renamed Broadway in 1890), then south to Fourth, then west to Hill, then south on Hill to Fifth, then west along the north side of 6th Street or Central Park (now Pershing Square) to Olive, then south to Sixth and, finally, west to Figueroa, near where the Los Angeles Woolen Mill recently opened. There was also an idea to extend the line south beyond city limits to Agricultural Park, now Exposition Park across from what became the University of Southern California of which Widney was a founder.

Los Angeles Herald, 10 December 1873.

On the 10th, the recently launched Los Angeles Herald reported that “Judge Widney is meeting with remarkable success in getting the stock” for the enterprise subscribed including from “most all the owners of property” along the route. It was not until 6 February 1874 that the formal organization of the Spring and Sixth Street Railroad Company was held at Widney’s office with he joined by merchant Eugene Meyer, Isaac W. Lord (later founder of Lordsville, now La Verne in eastern Los Angeles County) and F.P.F. Temple in the incorporation of the firm.

The election of officers led to Widney becoming president and general manager, Lord as secretary and Temple as treasurer with his Temple and Workman bank as the repository for the company’s funds and from which bills were paid, with Widney “authorized and directed to receive bids for the survey of the proposed route.” It was also decided to meet again in a week, but also to schedule a stockholders’ meeting for the purpose of adopting by-laws for the organization on the 21st.

Los Angeles Express, 6 February 1874.

In the incorporation papers, the county’s copy of which is at the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County at Exposition Park, about a third of the $12,000 in stock was subscribed wtih Temple taking $500, Widney $120, Meyer $180, Lord $40 and Jacob Weixel, who became the fifth director, paying for $520.

Over 40 other Angelenos were listed as initial stockholders, including Meyer’s brother and City of Paris store partner Constant; Temple’s son, Thomas, who was a cashier at the family bank; the bank’s manager Henry S. Ledyard, and such well-known locals as Judge Henry K.S. O’Melveny; Mayor James R. Toberman; merchant Louis Mesmer; lawyer Andrew Glassell; banker Isaias W. Hellman and his partner at the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank, ex-governor John G. Downey; and merchant Harris Newmark.

Star, 7 February 1874.

In its 10 February edition, the Herald recorded that there was more than $2,000 further in stock pledges and a few more subscriptions, while reporting that the first phase of outlays, such as equipment and stables for the horses, was to involve about $7,000. Work on the 6,000-foot long line, not that far over a mile, was to commence shortly and it was still anticipated that the northern terminus would be the intersection outside the Temple and Workman bank. It concluded that “the managers are going to start on correct principles” and that a five-cent fare would soon make the line profitable with operating expenses pegged at $200 monthly. The Express of that day provided fewer details, but noted that the “bob-tail” car only required a single horse and one conductor.

The next day, the Herald issued a lengthy editorial on “Street Railways” in which it stated that “the great importance of a cheap and rapid means of transit is but just making itself felt in our city.” This included the interest of business owners who sought “to possess themselves of rural homes, where they can be surrounded by fruits and flowers” and this expression of suburbanization is likely one an early one for what became the very horizontal development of greater Los Angeles with rapid transit and, much later, streets, highways and freeways, established to allow for longer and longer commuting distances.

Express, 10 February 1874.

The article went on to suggest that, while suburban families (East Los Angeles, now Lincoln Heights, was founded in 1873 and Boyle Heights was to come in 1875) could have a horse-drawn conveyance, this entailed significant expense, whereas access to cheap transportation was more desirable. Not only this, but it was stated that the building of the line would dramatically increase the values of adjoining and surrounding property perhaps by double, while the extension of a mile would lead to a 50% jump.

Within a week-and-a-half, the company printed a circular for property owners along the route and the Herald of the 20th averred that the document “ought to convince every one of the importance of taking the remainder of the stock.” Just under a week later, the paper reported that, at a directors’ meeting, “they ordered the managing agent [Widney] to proceed at once with the grading, and to contract for the iron, ties, cars, etc., instructing him to push the work to completion in the shortest time possible.” Widney then was stated as preparing for a trip to San Francisco to order materiel, while it was separately reported that the labor force would be the same working on Southern Pacific Railroad construction in the area.

Herald, 17 March 1874.

The Herald asserted that, having reviewed the map and profile, it was clear that no overly difficult work would be required and it was expected that the line could be in operation by mid-April and it was added that property in that southwestern quarter of the city where the line was to terminate would quickly see a major expansion in construction. The timeframe, by mid-March, was pushed back to May and there would be the further, and expected, delays in opening the line. At the end of March, the first stock assessment was issued to raise further cash in pursuing work.

The Herald of 28 March continue to sound the trumpet about increasing property values thanks to the development of the line, though it moderated its figures to suggest that a 20% increase was typical, though there were cases of a doubling in value. It told of a pair of merchants who’d come to Los Angeles to investigate opening a store and were prepared to give up the idea until they learned of the Spring and Sixth Street project and changed their mind. The paper added,

A few more such instances as this would probably convince most of our “chronic croakers” that a little more energy in our city will be of great practical benefit. Who will be the first to start another road? Don’t all of you speak at once!

The paper also reprinted a letter provided by Widney and from the Pacific Rolling Mill Company of San Francisco, which enclosed a bill for over 31,000 rails and fixtures of 20-foot length, which were shipped by steamer, while it was preparing to roll more rails which would comprise the balance of the order.

Herald, 5 April 1874.

A week later, the Herald reported on the arrival of the eighteen tons of materiel and it returned to the question of enhanced property values, asserting that “the line of this route is destined to be the most fashionable and most desirable for fine first-class residences.” It congratulated owners along the line for their sagacity “in securing the road to pass near this property,” while warning, “if there is any stock unsold they should promptly come forward and subscribe for it” and “start it clear of debt.”

Work pressed on into mid-May, when the Herald of the 17th, observed that the line “was pushed rapidly up Spring street yesterday, and the track laid as far” as its office. With this, it proclaimed, “now for the cars, and we have become a metropolitan city.” A few days later, it reported “the last rails . . . were laid yesterday” and noted “the first car . . . is expected to arrive this week from San Francisco,” this being delayed because fog delayed drying of the paint on the body.

Herald, 10 June 1874.

On 3 June, the paper recorded that “the northern terminus . . . was completed yesterday afternoon,” though this involved a change from the Main, Spring and Temple streets intersection to the southwestern corner of the Plaza in front of the Pico House. It was added that “Mr. [Juan] Cappe, the proprietor of the Pico House bar, brought out a ten-gallon keg of beer for the boys, to honor the driving of the last spike.”

While not as famous as the golden spike driven at Promontory, Utah five years earlier to mark the completion of the transcontinental rail line, the event was deemed to be one in which the paper stated, “it was an auspicious event and worthy to be honored as it was.” After a few details to be finished along the route, it was concluded, “the road [will soon be] placed in readiness for the cars.”

This ca. 1878 stereographic photo was taken by Arthur C. Varela, whose captions are distinctive and who sold his negatives to San Francisco’s Isaiah W. Taber, who then subsequently republished the image. The view shows a Spring and Sixth Street Railroad car with a sign on top reading “East Los Angeles” parked on Main Street in front of the Pico House, which still stands.

A week later, the Herald informed readers that “the first car . . . arrived yesterday; it will be placed upon the track to-day, and a trial trip or two made.” The vehicle was determined to be “a fine piece of workmanship, and contains all the elements of convenience, comfort and elegance which can be found in any street-car on the coast.” On the 11th, the paper went on, “the line will be run regularly, making fifteen-minute trips,” with trips from the southern end on the hour and half-hour and those from the northern terminus on the quarter and three-quarter hour. Tickets were offered at four for a quarter or twenty for a dollar, while students could buy thirty for a dollar on the cars or at the bookstore of William J. Brodrick or Frederick P. Howard’s drug store.

In July, the Common Council approved a petition from Widney to allow the two conductors, Barnes and Singer, to be appointed special police officers, clearly because their continual observations along the course of their leisurely rides through town would have been perceived as very helpful in the response to, if not the prevention of, crime. Yet, there were some early problems, one being that there were concerns that the grading the company undertook on streets might have violated the franchise agreement, while Francis Carpenter, the city’s jailor, complained that the curve of the line at Spring and First infringed on his property.

Herald, 16 September 1874.

In mid-July, Widney presented a report on the Spring and Sixth Street Railroad to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce (this being a forebear of the current organization) and informed his fellow members that the road cost $11,000, nearly 60% more than anticipated and that, with $6,000 in stock paid up and utilized, the remainder was debt, though it had $5,000 worth of unsold stock, as well.

The first day’s ridership numbered 125 passengers, but on Independence Day, 475 people rode the car and a record to date was 515 the prior Sunday, with average daily numbers since the 4th of July ranging from 216 to 280, though the stated daily average was 300 riders. The car’s maximum capacity was 60 and three horses were used in five-hour shifts “and that without over-tasking them.” If current patronage was maintained, Widney concluded, a dividend of 1% monthly on its stock was expected.

A late August ride by a Herald reporter included the observations that some property owners on the route were grading the streets in front of their lots to match that of the road, while planks were to employed on curves and other points and a second car was soon anticipated. It was stated that 8,000 trips were made in the prior month and the number was growing, while the last 200 shares of stock were taken by two unnamed men and half of all stock changed hands within the prior week. The article concluded, “altogether, the road seems to be in a flourishing condition.”

Herald, 14 October 1874.

In early September, the company petitioned the Council for an extension from the Pico House north to the grounds of the future Southern Pacific depot, known as the “River Station,” when it was completed in 1876 and where Los Angeles State Historic Park is today. This involved the line running north along Upper Main Street, though, with later redevelopment and rerouting of streets, this route would follow North Spring past César Chávez Avenue to the depot site.

Problems arose with the grading as some residents and property owners and Council members complained that the company’s work was such that the Herald of 3 October reported that “in one place a cut of six feet has been made and it is claimed that this will almost ruin the street for purposes of travel by teams. Two-thirds of property owners there called for the city to grade Upper Main to conform with what the streetcar company did and, by that time, Widney reported to the press that the iron for the rails was on the ground and laying of track ready to go.

In mid-October, the Herald was favored by Widney with a visit to the northern extension and it was observed that twenty workers were grading and laying track and it recorded that the line’s president hoped to pave over any difficulties with the City and local residents and property owners regarding grading matters. With work expedited to be completed before the rainy season set in, the paper ended by stating that the dispatch and thoroughness of the company “will be appreciated by those who can see the advantages which the enterprise gives to Los Angeles.”

This detail of a photo taken from the Pico House and looking north appears to show the track of the Spring and Sixth Street Railroad northern extension curving from Main Street to Upper Main Street (this area has been totally redeveloped and reconfigured) on it way to the terminus at what became the Southern Pacific’s River Station where Los Angeles State Historic Park is now. Note the “Chop House” and “Barnum Restaurant” signs on the adobe building—this was a Black-owned business in 1875-1876 and the photo is an early one showing such an enterprise.

Discussions at Council meetings got heated as some wanted to enjoin the company from further work and even looked for an injunction to stop operations of the line until the matter could be settled. When, however, the City took the Spring and Sixth Street Railroad to court in mid-November on the question, the restraining order on the work was dissolved and the injunction denied.

While the northern extension was about 300 feet shy of the future Southern Pacific depot by mid-January 1875, a report filed by Widney for company shareholders for the period comprising the last half of the previous year showed that total costs were just under $20,000, with over $2,100 expended since July, while earnings were almost $4,000. Over the six months, there were well north of 62,000 trips with generally healthy monthly increases: July—8,138; August—9,119; September—9,026; October—10,188; November—10,714 and December—15,239. With a cash balance of not quite $1,260, the financial situation was decent and future earnings were anticipated to be enough to get the remaining segment finished soon.

By mid-June 1875, there were a new set of stockholders, holdovers including the Temples and Ledyard, but also $4,000 taken by new arrival Stephen C. Hubbell, a lawyer, founder with Widney of U.S.C., future banker and attorney and an investor with other streetcar lines. John H. Jones , Charles A. Wilson, A.S. Bath, John Schumacher and Sheriff William R. Rowland, son of Rancho La Puente founder John Rowland, were others who held stock.

Herald, 13 January 1875. This was exactly a year before the closure of the Temple and Workman bank.

After the economy went into a tailspin a couple of months later and the Temple and Workman bank failed among other debacles, the Temples, naturally, bowed out and the Spring and Sixth continued operating until the early 1880s when it was taken over by the Central Street Railway Company. Within several years, the rise of cable and electric systems took place and horse-drawn lines faded away. Still, the Spring and Sixth bears remembrance as the pioneer of raid transit, such as it was, in greater Los Angeles.

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